The Evolution of TwitchPlaysPokémon

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Pokémon Red and Blue were among the very first videogame experiences for an entire generation of players. Nintendo’s released dozens of games within the Pokémon franchise since 1996, introducing a wealth of new regions, characters and Pokémon in the process, but there is something particularly magical about that very first generation that keeps players coming back to it time and again.

On February 12, 2014, an anonymous Australian only known as “The Creator” harnessed that nostalgia in the name of a curious experiment. Inspired by SaltyBet, a stream that allows viewers to bet virtual cash on AI-controlled fighting game matches, s/he programmed an emulated version of Pokémon Red to run on viewers’ commands. Players decide what the onscreen sprite will do by entering button presses into the chat box. An infinite number of people can be at the controls simultaneously, making for a whole new way to experience a childhood favorite.

It’s called TwitchPlaysPokémon, and although it sounds interesting in theory, it doesn’t look that great in action. Access the stream at any given time, and you’re as likely to find Red locked in an epic battle with the PC or a garden-variety ledge as you are to see him going head-to-head with another trainer. He turns in endless, erratic circles, missing doors and chatting up the same non-playable characters over and over again. He selects the Helix Fossil. And selects the Helix Fossil. And selects the Helix Fossil.

Despite the fact that TwitchPlaysPokémon became a wild success almost overnight, watching it is a recipe for boredom and frustration. Take into account Twitch’s significant lag (between 20 and 40 seconds) and a simultaneous viewership that reached more than 115,000 people at its pinnacle, and you get a result that’s nearly unwatchable. Intent is often lost in the frenzy, making even the most basic tasks, such as cutting a small tree to access a new path, a struggle. The stream can go long stretches of time without doing anything of consequence. Are we having fun yet?

And yet, that’s the seed of what makes TwitchPlaysPokémon so compelling.

“My friend sent me the link, and I was just curious. I started [the stream] and just starting laughing because it was so chaotic and nonsense,” explained Fabian Maus, one of the dedicated fans behind @twitchPKupdates, a Twitter account that provides around-the-clock updates on the game’s progress. There, he tweets under the moniker Crazy alongside the account’s founder, Ico, and his fellow admin, Wing.

“I said to my friend, ‘How can they? How can they play Pokémon and make progress?’” Maus continued. “He said, ‘We have three badges already.’ I was sucked in immediately.”

But to sustain a certain enthusiasm for TwitchPlaysPokémon, you can’t enjoy it alone. Although this may not have been intended at the outset, the stream itself has become almost secondary to the communities it inspired on social websites such as Reddit, where /r/twitchplaysPokémon is nearing 100,000 subscribers. There, fans have added what’s otherwise missing from the experience: a fresh story.

Mike Gysin, known as Wing on @twitchPKupdates, believes it’s the rapid creation of fanart and a common culture that’s been key to hooking players. To Gysin, it’s clear that TwitchPlaysPokémon wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is without a healthy following on Reddit and Twitter. Similarly, Maus pointed out that without these outlets, many of the jokes and observations made in the Twitch chat would be lost forever due to its impermanence and difficult-to-follow nature.

“I didn’t get invested in [TwitchPlaysPokémon] until I checked out the subreddit and talked to some people about it,” Gysin said. “Characters had developed. Suddenly there were villains, there were good guys, there were goals and jobs.”

Pokémon Red, played as it was originally intended, has a simple story of its own. A young boy sets off on an epic journey to master a skill, conquer evil forces and prove his mettle—not too complicated. Throw in a decidedly random style of gameplay, though, and the story starts to crumble. Is a Red who meanders indecisively back and forth at the edge of towns, seemingly stalling his own quest, the same Red as one who marches purposefully from battle to battle? What do the befuddled interactions with the world around him say about his competence?

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Fans put those questions to rest by getting to work on a storyline fitting of the irreverence playing out on screen. No longer was Red’s desire to constantly select the Helix Fossil a coincidence; it was an attempt to consult a holy being. When mistakes occurred or progress was stymied, the team’s Flareon was blamed and deemed a false prophet. Bird Jesus, a Pidgeot, was hailed as the pillar of strength that led the team through its darkest hours. Everything fell into place.

The trajectory the culture has followed is a familiar one. In an attempt to coax something meaningful, even comforting, out of chaos, the community quickly established a religion. You were either a follower of the Helix Fossil (good) or the Dome Fossil (evil), and that was it. But over time, secularism crept in. In the early days of the stream, Flareon was quickly purged following the release of two favorite Pokémon (“Abby” the Charmeleon and “JayLeno” the Rattata) even though the move, strategically, made little sense. However, when 12 Pokémon were tragically released hot on the heels of catching Zapdos, the community stopped short of taking revenge against the bird. Gysin explained that over time, it seemed that events in the stream came to be explainable through reason rather than blind belief.

Like many societies, the group eventually developed a political system. Following a grueling day of the players attempting to make it through the Team Rocket hideout with little luck, The Creator stepped in to ensure the experiment continued. S/he implemented a “democracy mode,” which allows players to band together to vote on the next move, as well as to string more complex commands together (a3, leftdown, etc.) Inputs are tallied over a 30 second period, and the most popular command becomes the next move.

“Anarchy mode is more chaotic; it causes unexpected and profound things to happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen. It can make for a more interesting story,” explained The Creator, but s/he also believes democracy was a necessary addition to the game. Without it, it may have been impossible to beat, as some sections of the game required more advanced coordination.

At first, the pushback against democracy was decisive. As soon as it was introduced, a “riot” erupted in which players spammed “start9” (which would repeatedly open and close the start menu) to protest what they perceived as an easy way out. However, according to The Creator, this may not really be the case, as “it’s worth noting that democracy mode behaves very similarly to how anarchy mode behaves with a low population.”

Democracy was soon implemented as a regular feature of the game alongside anarchy. Players could toggle between the modes by voting “anarchy” or “democracy” in the chat box, with the latter only accessible by an 80 percent majority vote. Had TwitchPlaysPokémon been home to a more fickle community, this may have spelled the end of an era. But instead, it put things into perspective. There is no place for intolerance and bickering in the face of such adversity, not when you’re up against a task that is insurmountable without unity. “If everyone wants to [beat the game] their own way, that’s kind of hard to achieve,” Maus said. “If we really want to beat it, we have to work together, and most of the people want to make that happen.”

TwitchPlaysPokémon is a hopeful kind of thing, in part because it feels both like this team shouldn’t have made it this far but also like it was destined to, like there has never really been any other option. Call it luck or Helix’s will or simply the power of a deeply engaged online community, but something beautiful has happened here, making the ending all the more bittersweet.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, March 1, Red and his team were honored in the Hall of Fame after more than 16 days of uninterrupted play. True to his promise to “[move] TPP onto the next game in the series after the current one is beaten,” The Creator has already launched a Twitch stream for Pokémon Crystal, though it’s yet to be seen if it will catch fire like its predecessor. But perhaps popularity shouldn’t be the goal. No future playthrough will be quite like Red. That first-time thrill, that narrative and that cast of characters may be best enshrined as parts of the experiment’s lore, set aside for now to make way for new stories and personalities to develop. What really must be carried forward is the community. You can be sure they won’t let this fire die.

Vanessa Formato has written for, Boston Globe’s and Worcester Magazine, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MirrorGoRound.

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